By Lisa Donnelly
I read with great interest the article in a recent home education magazine defending unschooling to structured schoolers. In my neck of the woods, the shoe seems to be permanently on the other foot. I can’t count the times I’ve heard my fellow homeschoolers, most of whom unschool, utter conventional proverbs such as, “When you’ve homeschooled long enough, you’ll unschool.” Statements like, “I facilitate my child’s education; I don’t control it,” leave me, the structured heretic, feeling a bit like Genghis Khan, as if I am riding roughshod over my children’s natural curiosity, completely ignoring their needs and desires with my imposition of structure on their education. Not that these comments are ever meant to be in any way derogatory or hurtful. The consensus is simply that once you’ve been home with your children long enough, once you’ve seen their minds blossom and their curiosity take wing, you’ll naturally relax and let Nature take her course. Unschooling is “natural” schooling.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Let me amend that statement: I couldn’t disagree more when it comes to my family’s adventure in homeschooling. I’ll be the first to admit the full-tilt classical curriculum from the correspondence school was an absolute flop. The curriculum was too rigid, too structured and too dependent on textbooks. There were daily reports, daily attendances, unit tests, everything I’d forgotten I hated about “school.” Being, like most homeschoolers, somewhat rebellious at heart, I quickly began to despise reporting to an overseeing organization and having to adhere to their schedule as we progressed through the year.
Our detour into “school at home” nearly derailed us entirely as homeschoolers. By the time all was said and done, I was ready and willing to send my kids to school, any school, just so long as I no longer had to be responsible for their education. Disillusioned and weary, I was completely confused about homeschool in general, and my own methods of homeschooling in particular.
Right about now I hear the chorus of voices crying, “Unschool! You needed to unschool! Relax and let life take over and allow things to proceed naturally. Allow your children to be responsible for their own education!”
But the problem was I had tried unschooling. While it may be natural education for many, for my family it was a natural disaster. I am not by nature an interactive person. People, including my own children, get in the way of thinking and creating. I begin writing, and everything else goes out the window. The house is a mess; the kids are unwashed and unfed. My husband wonders if and when his wife will check back in. It’s not natural for me to focus on providing educational and learning moments for my children any more than it’s natural for me to stop and clean the toilet the first or fifth time I notice, vaguely, it needs scouring.
Nor am I able to leave my own pursuits and follow someone else’s at the drop of a hat. That sort of demand tends to make me cranky. My kids, curious as they are, given the choice to be responsible for their own education would quickly choose Lego blocks and computer games over biographies of great world leaders. In short, nothing about me or my family translated well into an unschooling lifestyle.
In my desperation and guilt–after all, I’d now failed at two of the “best” methods of homeschooling, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum – I took Hermione’s advice and went to the library. Every homeschool magazine I could find came home with me, religious or secular. I read years’ worth of back issues of both Home Education Magazine and Growing Without Schooling. I pored over issues of Homeschooling Today. I reread Family Matters and Dumbing Us Down, and ventured into I Learn Better by Teaching Myself. I looked at Ruth Beechick’s books again, even though my oldest was beyond the grammar school stage she addresses. Everything I could find on the how and why of homeschooling I read and reread.
And when I was done, I had drawn what was for me a clear generalization of unschoolers. Most folks who adhere to a true or complete unschooling method are naturally outgoing, with entrepreneurial personalities. They’re organized and scheduled from within, not without. Me, if I don’t draw up a schedule for basics like housework and cooking, they never get done. If they’re not highly scheduled people, unschoolers are flexible, able to go with the flow, adapt their course and accomplish necessary tasks without a schedule. (See above comment on my life without a schedule.) In many ways, I believe unschoolers are born, not made. And the evidence from my life and my five years of homeschooling was irrefutable: I was not born an unschooler.
So, what did I do? Absolute structured school did not work, neither did straight unschooling. In the end, I gleaned from both extremes and landed somewhere in between, in territory I call “eclectic” homeschooling. Yes, I have a schedule for daily lessons, and, yes, I use curriculum–in some areas. I’ve also relaxed a great deal about a great many things a school would schedule and provide a curriculum for. My written lesson plans aren’t commandments in stone, they’re guidelines, and much is contingent on real life and current passions. Some subjects of study are non-negotiable; in others we follow the children’s interests and do our best to facilitate their individual journeys.
I still stand in awe as the unschoolers around me detail their learning adventures with their children. The stories of spontaneous education and children stepping out unprompted on their various projects and passions are wonderful to hear, although at times they make me slightly uncomfortable. I’m not so arrogant as to believe my children only learn during structured lessons, but surrounded by unschoolers as I am, it does give me cause to worry. Am I totally and completely stifling my children by dictating we follow a curriculum for grammar, by insisting on those written essays and daily math pages?
But when my middle child runs into the room to regale me with his own theory of the evolution of birds, or how he took his math lesson and made the leap that if 10 + 14 is 24, then 9 + 14 is 23, I know we’re doing what’s right for us. When my oldest child leafs through a book on sentence diagramming and says, “This looks interesting, Mom; when are we going to start it?” I know we’re on the right track for our family.
My trip back to the homeschool drawing board took well over a year. In the end, as is usual for such trips, I wound up about where I began. A little higher up the spiral, and a little more confident of my decision to honor my own personality and my children’s, more certain of my ability to create a method of homeschooling that fit my family’s individual learning styles and beliefs. My need for structure does not have to hinder my children’s natural ability to learn, nor will it automatically stifle their innate curiosity. Yes, I have scheduled lesson times, but they’re deliberately kept short, to be certain there’s also time for reading and playing and puttering about. The written routine keeps me honest, helps me interact with the kids and make sure I am providing the opportunities and material they need to assuage their curiosity about their own interests. It means my husband can relax and be certain the essential subjects of math and language arts are being covered. The kids know for that portion of the day, Mom is theirs to command. Our schedule keeps us moving forward, provides the structure we need to accomplish what many staunch unschoolers do naturally.
Despite conventional wisdom, unschooling isn’t the answer for all homeschoolers. Most families better define their method of homeschooling along a spectrum than in a box. Many unschoolers use curriculum here and there with their children; many structured schoolers study at least one or two subjects that are completely driven by the child’s interest. There’s no shame in not unschooling, and there’s nothing wrong with not using a school-from-a-box program. The only shame is when homeschoolers are left feeling like they are less than other families because they follow a different path for their learning adventure.
Homeschooling is all about meeting our children’s individual educational needs, but the parents’ needs cannot be left out of the equation. The solutions–structured or loosely defined–will be as individual as each family, each child and each parent involved. For my family, the eclectic, structured approach fits just fine.
© 2003 Lisa Donnelly
Reprinted with permission from Home Education Magazine, PO Box 1083, Tonasket, WA.